Larch Grove, Jenna Butler's small farm in Barrhead, Alta., had reached a kind of equilibrium for awhile. Butler - who wears many hats, from author and academic to farmer and permaculturist - worked the land during the summers and then went back to her work as a professor at Red Deer College during the winter.
Where commercial farmers use technology to produce food en masse, permaculturists plan their crops or arrangements using - and in an attempt to mimic - natural processes. It's working with the grain, rather than against it. It's also generally more difficult.
From their 160 acres she and her husband, Thomas Lock, a now-retired school teacher, grew organic food, and had a community-supported agriculture system (CSA) in place, where they would sell produce to people in Edmonton. It was never easy work: They had to put in all their own infrastructure themselves, as the land was raw, mostly muskeg. Still, since 2006, Butler and Lock have built their own tiny home - a mere 250 square feet in size - and hewed their own trails in what was, largely, wetlands with a small, 25-acre hay field in a corner.
Things were going well until a few years ago, when the floods began - one in 2012, and the most recent last summer. Some farmers in the region weren't able to get their equipment on the field, and weren't able to get their canola crops harvested. Butler had to move her entire farm house and set up a “floating road” across the muskeg to the hay field on the far side of their lot.
“They would be 50-year, 100-year floods, but now we're getting them every few years,” she said, but added that they've been fortunate. Both the farm and their own personal economies are diverse by design. Other people nearby are having to sell their farms.
Butler hopes to begin offering the CSA boxes again when things are running a bit more smoothly, and has plans to turn her tiny home into an artist's residence. She and Lock have an 800-square-foot cabin in the works - solar-powered since they're roughly a mile from the grid. There are plans to expand the farm as well, maybe growing her small bee-keeping operation or getting a few heritage chickens, cows or goats. She's particularly interested in organic flower growing since, she said, the pesticides used to grow commercial flowers are some of the worst in the world.
“It's something we're trying to get back to,” she said. “Our grandparents, if they were working on the land, that's what they did. They diversified so if something happened - if your chickens died or something, you had your root vegetables. If your root vegetables didn't do well, you had your bees. That diversity made you more resilient.”
The future of Butler's operation is intrinsically tied to the region's ecosystem which, she said, is growing more erratic with climate change.
Besides picking out hardier plants that are better-suited to the rigours of unpredictable weather, Butler and Lock are opening up old ditches. Originally dug by the farm's previous owner, the ditches surround Butler's hay field, and she's attempting to use them to create a large pond to both capture excess water - like from floods - and to have a steady source on-hand in case of drought or fires. It also creates a separate ecosystem in its own right.
“We've had a lot of floods in the spring, and then wildfires in the summer,” she said. “It's really hard. That's part of climate change: not being able to predict.”
Without this level of diversification, permaculture operations like Butler's are hard to make profitable, given they lack the raw yield of commercial farms. Other permaculturists, however, make their way offering their services to others. These businesses also face some steep challenges.
According to Kaz Haykowsky, Director and Vice President of Edmonton-based Spruce Permaculture, these businesses often need to do double duty in marketing: They need to educate the public about what permaculture is and why it's desirable, while also selling their own businesses. While permaculture is gaining traction across the world, Haykowsky said, Alberta is something of a hold-out, despite the province's strong agrarian roots.
While permaculture is gaining traction across the world Alberta is something of a hold-out, despite the province's strong agrarian roots.
“We're still fighting a bit of an uphill battle here in the prairies,” he said.
A great number of agriculture innovations come from and are used in Alberta, he added, but the average age of traditional farmers in Canada continues to rise each year - in 2017 it was 55, according to Statistics Canada, and the average size of the farms are growing larger thanks to advances in technology and technique.
“Without being trite or stereotypical, Alberta is a pretty conservative province, and we're tied to old ways of doing things,” he said.
Spruce Permaculture predominantly works with home owners looking to transform the green spaces on their properties, although other businesses and organizations also seek out their services. As permaculture's profile has increased, other Albertans have also begun looking into starting their own businesses or projects in the field, and both Edmonton and Calgary have permaculture guilds.
The practical stuff aside, permaculture theory can be applied to other businesses. The worker-owned business, tied to the idea of cooperatives in permaculture, for example, has seen little traction in Canada, but it's an idea that Haykowsky finds intriguing.
“The [workers] own the company, so they have an actual stake in it,” he said. “They buy in and see some of the return from the success of their work," Haykowsky said. "The employees have a sense of investment in the company. They're more likely to put their hearts into it, rather than just being another wage-earner with high turn over.”